The broadband plight faced by residents of Southeast Ohio and other parts of Appalachia now has an end in sight.
Residents of rural parts of the United States, especially Southeast Ohio and the majority of Appalachia, have historically lacked either broadband connectivity as a whole or suitable broadband speed. A new operation from the FCC, though, is going to change that in the next 10 years.
The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, or RDOF, operated by the FCC, is a program designed to bring broadband internet to areas that are underserved. According to a press release from the FCC, the RDOF, “prioritizes bids for higher speed—up to 1 Gbps—and lower latency networks, and more than doubles the minimum speed from the FCC’s 2018 Connect America Phase II auction to 25/3 Mbps,” or megabits per second.
The RDOF is designed to focus funds in areas that aren’t considered profitable, an FCC official said. The FCC is looking to spend its limited funds on places that cannot have broadband access without government support. In total, the FCC has $20.4 billion to spend to expand broadband access into rural areas.
Eligibility for the RDOF is based off of whether certain census blocks have either no provider offering or committed provider offering, no state-specific programs or no service of at least 25/3 Mbps, according to the FCC RDOF fact sheet.
Athens Mayor Steve Patterson is cautiously optimistic about the broadband expansion operation.
“I think it's great because there is absolutely a need in Southeast Ohio, especially in areas where we know that there are broadband deserts to where there's little to no broadband availability,” Patterson said. “One of the things that has me concerned, though, is the bid itself or the bidding process (of) the auction, which was the phase one auction.”
To subsidize its funds for the RDOF, the FCC held a reverse auction for the first phase of the RDOF, which began Oct. 29, 2020, and concluded Nov. 25, 2020. In the first phase of the auction, Ohio internet providers won $ 170 million out of the $16 billion possible that was budgeted by the FCC.
There is a second phase for the RDOF in which areas that only have partial broadband service have an opportunity to receive funding. That funding would utilize $4.4 billion and whatever amount of money is left over from phase one for partially-served areas, according to an FCC official.
Patterson’s concerns about the bidding process stem from concerns about who won. Patterson said winning bids came from internet providers such as Spectrum and Mercury Wireless. Both of those providers do not have continuous coverage for all of Southeast Ohio.
“I really have concern that they're actually going to be able to, to provide broadband to all the areas that they have indicated here in Southeastern Ohio,” Patterson said. “If you look at the map, you'll see that there is a whole lot of areas to where it's not continuous– they're kind of like islands all over the place on the Southeast Ohio map.”
Although there is now funding to expand broadband in Southeast Ohio, Patterson has his reservations about whether or not every single area will have reliable broadband access.
“On the one hand, again, the need is great and I'm excited that we're starting to see movement in Southeastern Ohio,” Patterson said. “Again, I have reservations as to whether all of these companies – all five of them – are actually going to be able to do what they bid on.”
Currently, there is no set date for the beginning of phase two and a second auction, due to the changing of federal administrations, according to an FCC official.